Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was met with deafening boos as she tried to give a commencement speech at a historically black college in Florida on Wednesday, a disastrous scene for an administration that has made repeated overtures to HBCUs.
An incessant chorus of booing and shouting from students and parents at Bethune-Cookman university in Daytona Beach caused DeVos to stumble over her words and speed through portions of her speech, which was at times almost inaudible.
DeVos, whose nomination for Education Secretary was deeply controversial from the day of her confirmation hearing, angered black college students early in her tenure by suggesting that HBCUs were “the original pioneers of school choice.”
More than a dozen graduates stood with their backs to DeVos throughout the entirety of her speech. Some members of the crowd were escorted from the room with their fists raised in the black power symbol. Chants of “hell nah” rang out as DeVos spoke about the “different life experiences” of those in the crowd.
Perhaps the loudest boos came when DeVos’s mentioned her plans to visit the gravesite of the school’s founder and namesake, Mary McCleod Bethune, an pioneering educator and civil rights activist who is deeply beloved on the 3,600-student campus.
Just this past weekend, Donald Trump stirred up a firestorm of controversy when he suggested that a funding program for black colleges might be unconstitutional because it was based on race. He and DeVos later walked back that statement, saying HBCUs had their “unwavering” support.
As DeVos spoke on Wednesday, a group of protesters stood outside in the Florida heat, holding signs that decried DeVos. On the backs of signs were congratulations for BCU’s graduates.
Cassandra Wallace, whose daughter is a sophomore at Bethune-Cookman, said she had come to support the school’s graduates. “They absolutely love Mary Bethune, and it’s sad that they’re being pulled into politics on a day like this,” she said. “We are here for them.”
The controversy over DeVos had been brewing since her announcement, with tens of thousands signing petitions calling for her removal. The Rev. Jeffrey Dove, an African Methodist Episcopal church pastor, stood on the sidewalk with a sign that said “No Justice, No Peace.” He and other black clergy leaders had met with BCU’s president, Edison Jackson, to ask him to rescind the invite for DeVos.
“I don’t hate Betsy DeVos, but the fruit from the poison tree is poisonous. Donald Trump is a racist and a sexist, and my job as a preacher to speak up against that,” Dove said. “There’s no problem with a dialogue, but this is not a dialogue, it’s a monologue.”
But Jackson has staunchly defended his decision, telling reporters Wednesday that “God is on our side, and when he’s for you, what does it matter who’s against you?”
He called DeVos’s visit an opportunity to “engage and educate” the secretary, and said she had met earlier with twelve Bethune-Cookman students who had offered her concrete policy suggestions.
But he also presented the decision as pragmatic. “We are always about the business of making new friends,” Jackson said. “Her department controls 80% of the revenue that comes into our school. Why wouldn’t we want to do that?”
Watch the full livestream of the commencement here.
Cora Lewis is a business reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Lewis reports on labor.
Contact Cora Lewis at email@example.com.
Molly Hensley-Clancy is a business reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. She covers the intersection of business and education.
Contact Molly Hensley-Clancy at firstname.lastname@example.org.